Even brain cells in a dish can exhibit inherent intelligence, modifying their behavior over time. According to a new study published in the journal Neuron, researchers placed human and mouse neurons in a dish and taught them to play the video game Pong.

The neurons were able to learn and adapt their behavior over time, showing that even simple brain cells have the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior.

The findings suggest that intelligence is not a uniquely human trait. But it is instead something that is present in all forms of life, even brain cells in a dish.

First author Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, from worms to flies to humans, states that neurons are the building blocks for generalized intelligence. So, the question was, as Kagan says, can we interact with neurons in a way to harness that inherent intelligence?

The neurons were first connected to a computer so that they could receive input on whether their in-game paddle was actually hitting the ball. They had used electric probes that captured “spikes” on a grid to monitor the neuron’s activity as well as its responses to this input.

The more a neuron moved its paddle and struck the ball, the stronger the spikes became. When neurons miss, a software program created by Cortical Labs analyzes their play style. This showed how neurons might adjust their activity in real time to a changing environment in a goal-oriented way.

Kagan, who worked with collaborators from 10 other institutions on the project, said, “We chose Pong due to its simplicity and familiarity, but, also, it was one of the first games used in machine learning, so we wanted to recognize that.”

The researcher also said that they applied an unpredictable stimulus to the cells, and the system as a whole would reorganize its activity to better play the game and to minimize the chances of having a random response. You can also think that just playing the game, as mentioned by Kagan, hitting the ball and getting predictable stimulation, inherently creates more predictable environments.

The free-energy principle serves as the foundation for this learning theory.

Simply put, the brain adapts to its environment by changing either its world view or its actions to better fit the world around it.

The research team tested other games besides Pong. When the Google Chrome browser breaks, you know because you can manipulate the dinosaur to jump over obstacles (Project Bolan). “We have done that and have seen some encouraging early outcomes, but there is still work to be done in creating new environments for specific uses,” Kagan explains.

This research’s future prospects could lead to the development of new drugs, the modeling of diseases, and a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and how intelligence develops.

According to Kagan, it touches on the central principles of not only what it is to be human but also what it means to be alive, intelligent, and able to process information in a dynamic, ever-changing environment.

Despite a number of applications, such as improving the accuracy of medical diagnoses or increasing the efficiency of manufacturing processes, one potential future implication of this finding could be that it could lead to the development of more intelligent artificial intelligence (AI) systems. If brain cells can exhibit intelligent behavior, then AI systems that we literally design to mimic the brain could potentially become much more intelligent.

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